Referees key to massive semifinal clash
You could tell it was playoff time in Super Rugby as the accusations flew this week in the form of not so subtle messages to the referees ahead of tonight's semifinal at Waikato Stadium.
Having alleged the Chiefs' tactics of using support runners to knock over opposition defenders was illegal, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said he believed some referees and their assistants had been too lenient in allowing the defending champions to wipe out tacklers and profit by generating quick ruck ball.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie was blunt in his response and threw the ball back in the Crusaders' half of the field.
''I think 50 per cent of the passes the Crusaders throw are behind their players so he might get himself in trouble there,'' Rennie parried.
''I'm not sure what he's referring to, to be honest. From a ball carrying point of view we haven't got guys running in front of anyone so I don't see that being an issue and I don't see us getting penalised for it.''
Rennie said there was an option for coaches to call a referee and discuss things or arrange to have a coffee with him, but he wouldn't be asking to drink flat whites with New Zealand-born Australian referee Steve Walsh before tonight's game and he rated him and South African Craig Joubert as the two best in the comp.
''We're very comfortable having Steve; it's a good appointment from our point of view and he is one referee who will penalise [Wyatt] Crockett if he is scrummaging illegally so we're happy with that.''
Touche. In the end it might all make a difference but Walsh is his own man and hardly likely to be swayed either way by the rhetoric. More likely the team that brings the keener edge to their game will be the one who wins tonight.
The Chiefs did it at Waikato Stadium on May 24 and won 28-19, while the Crusaders were as sharp as the Chiefs were blunt at AMI Stadium three weeks ago and ran away with it 43-15.
Rennie and fellow coaches Tom Coventry, Wayne Smith and Andrew Strawbridge this week named a starting XV minus five players from the team which started the rout in Christchurch and expect it to make a difference.
Liam Messam is one who was missing last time and was badly missed. Expect the set-piece clash to be massive battle with 137kg tighthead prop Ben Tameifuna a key man in anchoring the Chiefs' scrum against an All Blacks front row of Crockett, Corey Flynn and Owen Franks.
The bigger worry for the Chiefs is the lineout that has been a little vulnerable this season and particularly looks that way against the outstanding defensive lineout the Crusaders possess, led by All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Kieran Read.
The Crusaders are also outstanding at kickoff time and the Chiefs will have to match them there as well, while the collision area looks certain to be the equivalent of a hundred car wrecks.
The Chiefs need better field position this time and that will not happen without smart decision making and good quality ball out of defence. Like the Crusaders they will counterattack from anywhere when it is on but they need to avoid getting squeezed in their own red zone when in possession and back their defensive structures when needed.
Despite the injuries that have beset the Chiefs this year they still have the firepower in the backs to score tries and if the pack can get parity of possession and take a hard edge into the match the key pair will be Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden when it comes to sparking attacks.
Andrew Horrell will take some playmaking heat off Cruden at times and is another kicking option at second-five, while if the All Black has another off-day with his goal-kicking fullback Gareth Anscombe can this time be called in quickly to take over.
In Dan Carter the Crusaders have their ace in the hole, but just like Cruden he needs front-foot ball to do the damage.